When Sara Irvani went to Washington, D.C., in July, she was on a mission to make American manufacturing great again.
The 29-year-old executive, who took over the CEO role at her family’s Okabashi footwear company in March, was invited by the White House to participate in a panel discussion about domestic production, as part of the themed Made in America Week.
“I have a strong belief that eco-conscious, responsible manufacturing can flourish in the United States, if we focus on consumers and are disciplined in our approach,” Irvani said in a statement at the time.
It was a high-profile moment for the Buford, Ga.-based firm, which has been manufacturing recyclable, injection-molded footwear since 1984, when Sara’s father, Bahman Irvani, founded Okabashi.
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And indeed, raising the profile of the firm has been one of Sara Irvani’s key goals.
“Throughout our history, we’ve sold more than 35 million pairs of shoes, but still not that many people know our name,” she told FN recently. “We’re trying to get the message out there about our product.”
One of her greatest challenges early on was fine-tuning the message around the company’s two footwear brands: the Okabashi wellness line and the more fashionable Oka-B women’s collection.
“There are so many different stories embedded in these brands,” said Irvani, listing multiple attributes for the shoes: washable, built to last, made in America and recyclable.
One of the best tools in her arsenal to address the challenge has been technology.
Okabashi has been investing heavily in its digital capabilities, including hiring an in-house e-commerce team that has been revising its segmentation and consumer engagement strategy.
As a result, the firm has gained valuable knowledge about its products — not to mention the fact that e-commerce sales quadrupled in just two months, from April to June.
“It’s helping us decide what consumers resonate most with,” said Irvani. For instance, with the Okabashi label, it found that shoppers are most drawn to the contoured footbed and the USA story, while Oka-B customers are interested in affordable fashion.
“From those insights, we’ve been changing our collateral — even how our shoes hang in stores — making the messages more action oriented. For example, we’ve been testing things like ‘wash me, wear me,’” said Irvani.
Leah Link, assistant manager at the Haven Spa in New York, which stocks Oka-B in its boutique, said the brand’s washability is a big draw for her customers, as well as the styling. “Our clients were using the flip-flops while getting treatments, and they liked them so much, we decided to sell them at retail,” she said.
Okabashi’s new digital capabilities have also helped develop its wholesale operations. “We’re now doing more national drop-ship platforms, leveraging the fact that we’re a made-in-America company, so we can restock to retailers very quickly,” said Irvani. And the firm is offering to fulfill retailers’ dot-com orders if they want to sell extra inventory on their websites.
Other major initiatives in the works include a new label launching for spring ’18 targeted to millennials. The collection will consist of unique styles in distinct colorways retailing for $50 to $100. Initially it will sell online, with the potential to later collaborate with anchor retailers. “We think the customer likes to know the provenance of the product,” said Irvani. “So we’ll emphasize the story of our company.”
Additionally, Okabashi is broadening its global outreach. James Barshall, former CEO of Penfield ready-to-wear, has joined as head of international sales and is developing overseas partnerships.
“Increasingly, it’s an international customer base who is drawn to made-in-America products,” said Irvani, adding with a chuckle: “There’s a cool factor now, which there would never have been in the past.”